The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

June 4, 2008

Take the civic literacy test

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has been studying since 2005 whether college students know very much about civics and America’s heritage.

Now, you can take the test online and find out how much you know, or remember, from when you were supposed to be studying such subjects as American history, political science and economics. Feel free to post your score in Comments following this post. (I got 57 of 60, 95 percent.)

ISI’s first report, The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education's Failure to Teach America's History and Institutions, was followed one year later by Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions. Both reports painted a pretty grim picture about American college-student civic literacy: The 7,000 college students who took the survey averaged 54 percent correct, which would usually rate as an F grade. These four questions were answered correctly by fewer than 50 percent of college seniors:
  • Yorktown was the battle that ended the American Revolution (45.9 percent).
  • In the Civil War, Fort Sumter came before Gettysburg, and Gettysburg came before Appomattox (47.7 percent).
  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” comes from the Declaration of Independence (45.9 percent).
  • The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed to resist Soviet expansion (42.7 percent).
My former employer, Marian College (now Marian University), got some media attention in the past year because Marian seniors had the second highest improvement in scores, 9.44 percentage points, from taking the test as freshmen to taking the test as seniors — an indication, according to ISI, that students were actually being taught civics in college. That was 13 places better than the students at the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater, and Marian and Wisconsin were the only Wisconsin colleges to reach the top 50 in survey score improvement.

Marian got notice a second time when ISI linked score improvements and presidents’ salaries. This quote from ISI’s September 2007 news release says:
“Higher education is a $325 billion business where at many prestigious universities presidents earn half-a-million dollars a year or more,” says Josiah Bunting III, chairman of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. “Ironically, based on our research, the lowest gains in knowledge in America’s history and institutions are found at many of these elite universities where their presidents are simply not doing enough to help preserve our traditions of freedom and representative government. The time has come for higher education’s key decision-makers—state legislators, trustees, donors, alumni, faculty, students’ parents—to hold the nation’s colleges and their presidents accountable for teaching their students America’s history and institutions. ...

“Virtually every institution of higher learning claims some form of citizenship, leadership, or national service in their mission statement. However, the evidence from our ongoing research shows that colleges are failing to advance students’ knowledge of America’s history, government and free market economics and consequently not preparing their students to be informed and engaged citizens.”
On the one hand, there is Marian and Concordia University of Nebraska, whose presidents earned less than $167,000 per year, according to ISI, yet whose students improved the most. (Marian also ranked second, and UW 15th, in an interesting metric, “Civic Course Quality,” defined as freshman-to-senior score improvement divided by the mean number of history, economics and political science courses students reported taking). On the other hand, students at Cornell, Duke, Princeton and Yale, whose presidents earned more than $500,000 per year, were around the bottom in freshman-to-senior improvement.

One fact that might embarrass two publishers of college guides: The higher that colleges scored on the U.S. News and Barron’s college rankings, the worse those colleges’ students scored on the civics survey. The seniors at four of U.S. News’ top 12-ranked colleges — the aforementioned Cornell, Duke, Princeton and Yale — actually scored worse than the freshmen did. (ISI calls those four “elite centers of ‘negative learning.’”)

The CDPY four (what would that acronym mean: “You Can’t Do Politics”?) would probably answer that, well, their improvement scores are low because their incoming freshmen are the cream of the crop of American high school students and hence know all this stuff coming into college. Their mean freshman scores from the 2006 survey: Yale, 68.94 percent; Duke, 65.66 percent; Princeton, 63.6 percent; Cornell, 61.9 percent, scores that rank somewhere in the D range. Those scores also don’t justify scores’ dropping from freshman year to senior year.

ISI uses the survey to ask four questions about financial accountability — whether students and parents are getting the most from college costs, whether government is getting the most from student financial aid grants, whether alumni and other donors are getting the most out of their donations, and whether college trustees are getting the most out of the presidents they select — along with a question of whether colleges are encouraging students to take enough courses about “American history and institutions,” and whether colleges are evaluating the quality of those courses.

I imagine most college professors would give this assessment little credibility. One could argue that much of what was on this test should have been taught in high school, and that’s a valid point. Those associated with liberal arts colleges like to talk about “learning to learn,” an important ability in an era of multiple careers. But wisdom comes in part from knowledge, knowing how we got to where we are. One problem our country has is that there are not enough informed voters, and an informed voter really needs to know how and why the system works before he or she casts a vote. (Which is why I stopped writing those "Regardless of how you vote, make sure you vote" editorials; if you can't figure out why you're voting for someone, then the country will be better off without your vote.)

One also wonders if this isn’t a demonstration of professorial relativism, that professors really don’t see a difference between the U.S. and other countries. (For those who don't: Consider how successful you'd be teaching about the problems with militant Islam in Iran.) This is, I suspect, the ISI's biggest gripe: Colleges don't teach enough about "America's founding principles—limited government, individual liberty, free market economics, the rule of law, private property, and personal responsibility." Whether or not the U.S. follows those principles today, those are America's founding principles.

The new University of Wisconsin–Madison chancellor is Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, whose scholarship is in the area of ... well, read for yourself. Martin's particular relativist thoughts can be found on page 91 of this journal, where she also denigrates her entire family as racist hicks. (Martin clearly is no Donna Shalala.)

In a country where fewer than 30 percent of people have college degrees, college graduates are natural leaders in their communities, which means that it is important for colleges, quoting from ISI, “to instill in successive generations of students a better understanding of and appreciation for the values and institutions that sustain a free and virtuous society.” As goofy as you might find Martin's worldview that the more words you know, the more you avoid "small-mindedness, impoverished languages, denials of history, distortions of reality, and the elevation of form over substance," our country's emphasis of individual rights gives her the right to hold and express those points of view — rights she would be denied in most of the world today. It would be nice if college students learned that somewhere before graduation.

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